Latin American sees rising public discontent

Latin American sees rising public discontent

In most Latin American countries, people are taking to the streets to protest against their governments for a variety of issues. If public services and governance indicators do not improve, the demonstrations could take a violent turn and impede economic growth.

Since late January 2014, Venezuela has held the spotlight in Latin America. Fast forward to April and Venezuela remains politically chaotic, with protesters continuing to flock to the streets in large numbers. The Venezuelan situation now seems like a political novella.

On April 1, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro wrote a New York Times Op-ed in which he criticized the American media for disseminating biased information and trumpeted his government’s success in reducing poverty. Maduro’s Op-ed seemed to do little to mitigate the violence at home.

On Friday, protests gained strength after the government formally charged the jailed opposition leader with seditious offenses. Although Venezuela is certainly the most violent example of popular unrest in Latin America, it is not the only one.

In almost every country in Latin America—wealthy and impoverished countries alike—anti-government protests and silent dissent movements have sprouted in 2014. Reasons for the anti-establishment sentiment include harsher government policy towards targeted industries, corruption, lack of public services and weak judicial institutions.

In all cases, the root of the malcontent has been government inefficiency and continued government inaction towards the needs of wealthier societies trying to impose higher standards on its politicians.

In each country, foreign investors should keep a wary eye on these protests. If they follow Venezuela’s violent path, government promises to foreign investment in Peru, Colombia, Chile, and other countries in the region could be compromised.


The longest teacher’s strike in ten years finally ended on March 30, after 17 days of organized protests in the streets of various Argentine cities. Teachers in Buenos Aires were demanding a 35 percent wage increase to match salaries in neighboring provinces. Their reasoning is due to above-15 percent inflation rates in the past six years.


For the first time in 20 years, a general strike was called in Asuncion, the country’s capital, to demand wage increases for rural workers and farmers. Four labor unions representing mainly farmers organized the strike on March 26 rallying against President Horacio Cartes. The strike was relatively peaceful and has led to discussions between the central government and major unions.


In late March, students mobilized to remind the newly formed social democratic government that it promised better quality and cheaper education for all students. Nearly three years ago students and underrepresented minorities effectively garnered attention by organizing and marching in several cities across Chile. It is improbable that student-led protesters will ease until progressive demands are met.


Through the end of March, informal miners in Peru protested “the end of the formalization process” that would economically integrate most informal miners. The government reached a deal with the majority of informal mining groups last week, although miners in the remote Madre de Dios region in southeastern Peru did not accept the government’s terms of agreement.

At times, the demonstrations turned violent between miners and police and tear gas was used. These groups are still protesting throughout Peru. Informal mining continues to be a large risk for the Peruvian government as it attempts to lure in foreign investment for its extractive industries.


The recent legislative elections were a blow to the Colombian democratic establishment. In the country’s Caribbean coast, a small fishing village known as Tierrabomba decided not to cast a single vote in the elections and has threatened to do the same for the presidential elections. For years, this impoverished community had been ignored when it asked for basic public goods such as roads and sea walls to prevent coastal erosion.

Some have touted this as a “spring” because other poor communities are now threatening to do the same and avoid voting altogether. On a national scale, record numbers of people voted for no political parties or candidates through a blank vote. Colombians are showing their dissatisfaction with the political establishment in more passive ways than the rest of the region. Regardless, the legislative elections demonstrate a clear anti-establishment sentiment.


As the World Cup approaches, Brazilians have taken advantage that their country is under the world spotlight. Like Chileans, Brazilians feel that they deserve first class public services as they saw the economy grow considerably in the 2000s and all but recover after the 2008 crisis.

The Brazilian economy is arguably the most developed and certainly the most industrialized in the region, so its citizens expect more effective governance and progressive political leadership.

The spirit of the Confederations Cup protests of 2013 is still present today. As of late March, regular protests demanding better healthcare, social policy, poverty reduction and better public transportation took place in Brazil’s large cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Earlier in March, rubbish collectors in Rio de Janeiro stopped working to protest low wages and an unfair working environment. They were successful in earning a pay rise of 37 percent after eight days of strikes.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Daniel Lemaitre

Daniel is a GRI Senior Analyst. He has worked in policy research centered on the political economy of the Andean region in the public, NGO, and private sectors. Daniel holds an MSc in Comparative Political Economy from the London School of Economics, concentrating on Latin American markets.